`Geezer-Bashing' And Other Budget Bias

IT'S only a few weeks old, but Bill Clinton's economic package already deserves credit for spurring at least one growth industry - the instant rise in media reporting and commentary on the U.S. budget.

The boom in media analysis of the Clinton plan has sparked some incisive reporting, but much of the coverage has simply highlighted long-standing biases and blind spots of the national press corps.

-- "Geezer-bashing" - The consensus among mainstream reporters and pundits is that courageous politicians must "stand up to" the seniors - often portrayed as greedy or spoiled, and unwilling to sacrifice.

As President Clinton prepared his economic plan, for example, NBC's John Chancellor offered this commentary: "Governing means deciding who gets what and when they get it. One group did really well from 1980 to 1990: Households headed by people over 65. . . . If you made a movie about who gets what, you could call it: `Honey, We Robbed the Kids.' "

Chancellor's analysis of 1980s robbers neatly overlooked S&L looters, junk bond dealers, corporate takeover artists and his boss, General Electric - owner of NBC - which helped write the 1981 corporate tax law that slashed its own taxes to below zero.

Clinton's plan would raise taxes on Social Security benefits of couples with combined incomes above $32,000 and individuals above $25,000. Such seniors were referred to by reporters as "well-to-do." Sixteen thousand dollars each for grandma and for grandpa hardly makes them "well-to-do."

Given media vitriol aimed at "greedy" seniors, much of the public may not realize that Social Security benefits are the main sustenance of most elderly Americans, and all that keeps a third of them above the poverty line.

Advocates for seniors - far less visible in the media than "geezer-bashers" - warn that "means testing" of Social Security recipients would transform this popular insurance system into a welfare program vulnerable to further cuts. Rather than monkey with Social Security to exclude well-off seniors, these advocates call for increasing taxes on all wealthy Americans - young, middle-aged or elderly.

-- Overlooking Pentagon Largess - News reports have referred to "deep defense cuts" in Clinton's economic plan. Many Americans might be surprised to learn that Clinton's first-year budget reflects only a 4-percent reduction from George Bush's proposed military funding - mostly through trimming personnel and a salary freeze.

Costly weapons systems, many developed to fight a Soviet Union that no longer exists, remain in the budget virtually untouched. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen - known as "Loophole Lloyd" - is credited with saving Star Wars, the V-22 Osprey aircraft (which Bush's Defense Department tried to cancel) and other expensive projects important to Texas. It was reported in Defense News, but not in big media, that Defense Secretary Les Aspin actually rejected budget cuts proposed by the Army and Air Force.

Day after day, TV pundits regularly beseech politicians to "take on entitlements and Social Security" to reduce the deficit. Rarely does anyone on TV demand deficit-reducing cuts in the post-Cold War military.

-- Soothe-the-Rich - While polls show that raising taxes on the wealthy is overwhelmingly popular, that's not the case among powerful pundits - who attack Clinton's small, loophole-ridden tax increases on the wealthy as "soak the rich" tactics. After the 1992 election, ABC's David Brinkley told a trucking industry group that raising taxes on the well-to-do was a "sick, stupid joke."

Even full implementation of Clinton's income-tax hikes on rich Americans would still leave them among the lowest-taxed in the advanced industrial countries. But the whining by the megapundits does make certain selfish sense. They're in the top income brackets themselves: George Will's income is a reported $1.5 million yearly, according to the new book on the pundits called "Sound and Fury," and election filing showed Patrick Buchanan made over $800,000 in 1991.

-- Decrying "Class War" - A Washington Post news article (headlined "Is Clinton Pitting Class Against Class?") spoke of Clinton's "soak the rich" desires and his "populist provisions" - such as a curb on corporate deductions for country club dues. During the 1980s, when changes in the tax code abetted one of the most dramatic transfers of wealth from one class to another - that is, from working class Americans to the rich - it's hard to find a news story headlined: "Is Reagan Pitting Class Against Class?"

National media should do some re-budgeting of their own: Trim away biases that support wealthy interests, and increase expenditures to cover the economic interests of poor and middle-income Americans.

(Copyright, 1993, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)

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